The St. Helena Counterpoint
Napoleon's Exile – The Myth Exploded
By Lally Brown
For two years I lived on the island of St. Helena in the South Atlantic Ocean and had the good fortune to live in the house built for Count and Countess Bertrand in 1815. The Bertrand's accompanied Napoleon into exile and remained with him on St. Helena until after his death in May 1821.
The cottage next to Longwood House which
was built for Count and Countess Bertrand
and their family in 1815
While I was on the Island the curator of the French Domaines, Michel Dancoisne-Martineau, introduced me to the manuscripts kept in the British Library in London relating to the period of Napoleon's detention and death on St. Helena 1815-1821, in particular Add.MSS 20115 to 20229.
These are primary source documents, some in French, written in original hand, covering an enormous field of interest. Known collectively as the Hudson Lowe Papers, there are thousands of documents including letters from Count Montholon; Count Bertrand; Count Balmain (the Russian Commissioner); Count Las Cases; General Gourgaud; Dr. O'Meara (Napoleon's first doctor); Dr. Stokoe; Admiral Plampin; Lord Bathurst (Secretary for War and Colonies in London ); The Duke of York; Napoleon's mother and his sister; etc. etc. These names are all very familiar to Napoleonic enthusiasts.
There are Intelligence Reports from Washington , Paris , Austria and South America on escape plans for Napoleon; Reports from Napoleon's doctors on his health; Reports on the meetings between Sir Hudson Lowe and Napoleon; and Reports by Dr. O'Meara on conversations with Napoleon. There are detailed Reports from the British Orderly Officers appointed to guard Napoleon at Longwood House - one of them, Captain Nicholls, also wrote a personal journal.
There are Lists of Provisions for Longwood House (including a very extensive Wine List); a List of the Ships that visited St. Helena (with names of passengers); a Catalogue of the furniture in Longwood House at the time of Napoleon's death and a Catalogue of the books in his Library (1,847 volumes).
Over a period of three years I researched, documented, and transcribed some of these manuscripts. I presented two of the transcribed documents (Add.20161 and 20229) to the Archives Department on St. Helena . My research resulted in a radio play (also available in the Archives Department) and a book manuscript (The St. Helena Counterpoint – Napoleon's Exile, The Myth Exploded) for which I am currently seeking a publisher. The book is a chronological Diary of Events 1815-1821 brought 'alive' through the medium of a Journal ostensibly written by Countess Fanny Bertrand. I have also included some chapters recounting my own 'parallel' life on St. Helena 2000 to 2002.
My home on St. Helena was the cottage built for Count Henri Bertrand (Grand Marshal to Napoleon's Palace) and his family at Longwood, when they accompanied the Emperor into exile. Many historians are under the impression that Count Bertrand lived at Hutt's Gate, two miles from Longwood House. However, the Bertrand family were in rented accommodation at Hutt's Gate for only a few months, until a cottage next to Napoleon's Longwood House had been built for them. They moved into the cottage (now known as Longwood Farm House) on 20 th October 1816 and remained there until Sunday 27 th May 1821 , twenty-two days after the death of Napoleon. The family left St. Helena on Sunday 27 th May, 1821 , on board the 'Camel' store ship, with Count Montholon, Dr. Antommarchi, Abbé Vignali, Marchand, Ali, Noverraz, Archambault, Pierron and the rest of Napoleon's servants.
For the interest of Napoleonic Society historians I give below a few examples transcribed from the original manuscripts held in the British Library, London .
(i) Letter from Barry O'Meara (Napoleon's Doctor) to Sir Hudson Lowe, giving details of a conversation in Italian, between himself and Napoleon concerning the 'great' Battle (at Waterloo ).
(excerpt from document in Add.MS 20116)
Longwood, 31 st October 1816
"… I (Napoleon) could scarcely have believed that he (Lord Wellington) would have given me Battle because if he had retreated as he ought to have done to Antwerp I must have been overwhelmed by the arrival of three or four hundred thousand men coming against me and against whom I could not possibly resist. Besides if they intended to give Battle it was the greatest coglioneria in the World to separate the Prussian and English Armies. They ought to have been united and I cannot conceive the reason of their separation. It was also coglioneria in him to hazard a Battle in a place where if defeated all must have been lost, for he could not retreat….."
"………my intentions were to destroy the English Army. This I knew would produce an immediate change of Ministry. The indignation against the Ministry for having caused the loss of 40,000 of the flower of the English Army, the sons of the first families and others who would have perished there, would have invited such a popular commotion that they would have been turned out, the people would have said "What is it to us who is on the throne of France, Louis or Napoleon, are we to sacrifice all our blood to place on the throne a detested family? No! We have suffered enough; let them fight it out amongst them. Its no affair of ours. The English would have made peace and withdrawn from the Coalition …."
(ii) Memoranda of Conversation (commenced in French but continued at Napoleon's request in Italian), between Napoleon and Sir Hudson Lowe at their first meeting, which lasted half an hour while the two men talked alone. This document, by Sir Hudson Lowe, Civil and Military Governor of St. Helena , is written in a combination of English, Italian and French.
(excerpt from document in Add. 20115)
17 th April 1816
"Had my first interview with him at 4 o'clock in the afternoon – was accompanied to his house by Rear Admiral Sir George Cockburn – General Bertrand received us in his dining room, serving as an antechamber and instantly afterwards ushered me into an inner room, where I found him (General Bonaparte) standing, having his hat in his hand – not addressing me when I came in but apparently waiting for me to speak, I broke the silence …"
"….We will speak then in Italian he said, and immediately commenced in that language a conversation, which lasted about half an hour, the purport of which was principally as follows. He first asked me where I had served – how I liked the Corsicans …. He asked me if I had not been in Egypt with them, and in my replying in the affirmative, entered into a long discussion respecting that Country. 'Menon was a weak man – if Kleber had been there you would have all been made prisoners'. He then passed in review all our operations in that country, with which he seemed as well acquainted as if he had himself been there, blamed 'Abercromby' for not landing sooner…."
"…..He asked me if I knew ' Hutchinson ' and whether it was the same that had been arrested at Paris ; which a reply was of course given in the negative….. the subject of Egypt was again resumed. It was the most important Geographical point in the World, and had always been considered so. He had reconnoitred the line of the canal across the Isthmus of Suez and had calculated the expense of it at 10 or 12 millions of Livres …. That a powerful Colony being established there it would have been impossible for us to have preserved our Empire in India . He fell again to rallying at Menon ….
"….He then asked me some further questions regarding myself. Whether I was not married. If I had not become so shortly before my leaving England . How I liked St. Helena . I replied I had not been a sufficient time here to form a judgment upon it…. After a short pause he asked how many years I had been in the service –' Twenty Eight' I replied …."
(iii) Letter from Lord Bathurst, Secretary for War and Colonies, London , to Sir Hudson Lowe regarding the provisioning of Longwood House.
(Excerpt fromletter in Add. 20199)
22 nd April 1817
".. the wine of which he (Napoleon) is most fond, I have always understood, is Burgundy ; but I have every reason to believe it would never bear the passage and if it arrived sour he would swear I intended to poison him."
(iv) General Montholon is given the task of reducing expenses at Longwood House in an attempt to keep the budget to £1,000 per month (i.e. £12,000 per year, which is the same budget as that given to the Governor for his household expenses.) However, the expenses incurred by the Longwood House establishment were calculated to be almost £20,000 per annum.
(excerpt from Memorandum in Add. 20116)
9 th September 1816
"General Montholon is keeping an exact account of the daily expenditure to find what reductions he can make in the different articles of provisions, but which will take some time to ascertain correctly. He finds however that 60 pounds of beef daily will suffice and, if a piece of salt meat is supplied daily, a further reduction of 50 pounds per day, but fish must be had daily.
In respect to victualling (sic) the English servants separately, General Montholon is of the opinion it would not have the desired effect, as those that attend in the house could not be prevented from pilfering sufficient to live on, and otherwise make away with their allowances, and those out of the house would be dissatisfied at any distinction made between them. General Montholon has also made a saving of 3 bottles Claret, 2 Madeira, 2 beer and 6 pounds of bread daily, and by having a pig each fortnight to fatten on the refuse of the kitchen, a saving will be made in mutton and roasting pig and a small reduction can also be made in poultry, salt, oil and butter which he estimates in the whole at 4000 Francs per month at present and he thinks he shall be able to reduce something more in a short time, in Claret and mutton, but wishes to do it gradually. On other articles General Montholon is afraid no reduction whatever can be made."
"General Montholon intimates that the following under mentioned wines will for the future be sufficient for daily consumption:
9 bottles Claret, 1 bottle Madeira , 1 bottle Vin de Grave, 1 bottle Champagne , 1 bottle Constantia, 6 bottles Teneriff and 20 bottles Cape ."
(v) Detailed in the manuscripts are several escape plans (1816,1817,1818) formulated for Napoleon which were supported by his brother Joseph in the United States of America , and by supporters in South America , none of which were to prove successful. The following letter addressed to Marshall Count Bertrand was intercepted at the post office.
(excerpt from Add. 20115)
Postmarked 13 th March 1816
"….. I told you before the boat that will drift to the back of the Island will be in the shape of an olde (sic) cask but so constructed that by pulling at both ends to be sea worthy and both boat and sails which will be found inside will be painted to correspond with the colour of the sea, and when the Emperor, and one more which will be requisite to transform the boat as I said above, is all ready he must bear away right before the wind, for the ship, after drifting the boat to the Island, will manoeuvre so as to get right to Leeward and display a light out of one of the port holes, for to show it at the Mast Head would endanger it to be seen by the enemy. You may calculate the ship distance about 14 miles at starting from the Island, and to prevent any mistake should an enemy ship appear in sight, yours will be uncommon long and low painted much the same as the boat and sails …..
…..It will depend on circumstances which port in the United States his Majesty will land at, but he may depend upon the most cordial and fraternal reception. The Empress and King of Rome if possible will be there before him and a great many of his faithful subjects headed by the Marshals and Ministers …...
…..they only await his nod and when he once secures Spain , France must surrender for both soldiers and people longs for him and sighs for him. There is not the least doubt but the exalted hero will have greater fleets and army's than ever. God preserve you in his holy keeping.
NB I thought best to write this in English to take off suspicion and prevent detection. I believe I told you before the rope I enclosed you in the last package for the Emperor to slide down the brow of the cliff with when his spy on the look out informs him of the arrival of the boat."
(vi) The manuscripts show that on several occasions both Count Bertrand and Count Montholon expressed the desire to leave St. Helena and return to Europe . Countess Montholon, claiming ill health, left the island with her children on board the ship Lady Campbell on 2 nd July 1819 .
The following letter was written in Lord Bathurst's own hand and addressed to Sir Hudson Lowe.
(excerpt from Add. 20202)
Downing Street , London
16 th March 1820
Having understood that it is the intention both of Count Montholon and General Bertrand to apply for leave to return to Europe; and as in consequence of their departure General Bonaparte's Society at Longwood will be essentially straightened, you will take a fit opportunity of conveying to him His Majesty's disposition to attend to any wish which the General may express in favour of any individual whose arrival at Longwood would be satisfactory to the General.
If General Bonaparte should prefer leaving the selection either to the Cardinal Fesch or to the Princess Pauline de Borghese I will readily make a communication to that effect……" ٱ
I hope this small taste from the manuscripts in the British Library will show how valuable this little known and previously unpublished primary source material could be to Napoleonic historians.
Lally Brown on St. Helena